It’s not that I want fewer games or fewer teams or anything. What I’d like to avoid is that sad feeling of diffusion, mixed with an odd short-term nostalgia, that always rears its head around now.
Remember the first match, that thrilling 1-1 draw between South Africa and Mexico? How long ago does that seem? Summer hadn’t even officially started at the time – now the East Coast is setting heat records. Friends have had babies since then. We were still talking about elaborate new schemes to plug the leak in the Gulf. That pro wrestler guy who everyone hated still had a shot at the Bachelorette.
The thing about that first match, though: Tshabalala’s strike aside, it wasn’t actually that good a game. But the memory of it still glows with the sense of promise for what lay ahead. On June 11 we could believe anything: That South Africa were somehow going to ride their country’s excitement into the next round; that this time, Mexico had the finishing to go beyond the Round of 16; that Rooney and England had finally figured out how to fuse speed and strength with technical proficiency; that Xavi and Torres were going to pick up exactly where they left off at Euro 2008; that Ivory Coast, in those gorgeous orange shirts, were going to beat Brazil and Portugal or at least lose 3-2 in trying; that Messi was going to reinvent football as we know it.
None of those things has quite happened. It’s not that this has been a bad World Cup. On balance – and with the exception of the refereeing -- it feels like it’s been pretty good, especially the drama of the later stages. It’s just that it exists now in reality – with all the imperfections and disappointments that reality involves -- rather than in our minds.
That’s inevitable, but I’m curious to know whether it makes anyone else feel like the last week or so of the tournament always comes off as a bit of an anti-climax. Unless you’re Dutch, Spanish, or German, it’s hard to connect what’s happening now with that “extraordinary festival of joy,” as one over-excited TV commentator put it, of the far-off mid-June era.
In reality, there’s probably no way to shorten the tournament and keep the same format, without ending up with two finalists who were dead on their feet. I suppose what I’m looking for is a way to ensure that that euphoric optimism of the early days carries through to the final. And maybe that’s impossible, but a fan can dream.